Gravel Racing 101: The present and future of cycling’s fastest growing discipline

Gravel experts Kiel Reijnen and Hannah Finchamp explain why it's so beloved

The best way to describe gravel racing is “not road racing,” both in a tangible and philosophical sense.

Road races take place almost exclusively on pavement, while gravel races almost exclusively do not. But from this easy physical distinction, unique personality traits emerge. Road racing is old, storied, rigid, precise. Gravel racing is young, burgeoning, lax, loose. While the former builds singular legends out of marginal gains, the latter builds community out of collective experience.

The two disciplines are almost diametrically opposed. And while we love road cycling here — there’s nothing like the history, pomp and stakes of a grand tour or classic — gravel racing is a refreshing change of pace from the stuffiness that can infiltrate some corners of the sport.

Some local color at The Mid South. | Photo: Wil Matthews

This year, Trek-Segafredo’s Keil Reijnen will race UNBOUND Gravel with teammate Quinn Simmons. As a “recovering pro road cyclist” who finished sixth at UNBOUND’s precursor event in 2019, Reijnen has become something of a gravel evangelist.

“[Road racing] is very different from gravel, where it’s really about sharing, it’s about inclusivity, it’s about community,” Reijnen says. “If someone asks me, ‘Why are you doing UNBOUND Gravel?’ Well, it’s really enjoyable for me, but I also want to share that experience with people. I want to get people excited about gravel riding, or just riding bikes period, whatever your bike of choice.”

I want to get people excited about gravel riding, or just riding bikes period, whatever your bike of choice.

- Kiel Reijnen

Gravel racing is one of cycling’s fastest growing sports — nearly 1,200 people participated in UNBOUND’s 200-mile race in 2019 — and well worth your time, whether you’re considering participating in a local event, or simply watching from afar. 

We’ve enlisted Reijnen and Orange Seal’s Hannah Finchamp to help us explain why this blooming discipline is so beloved. Welcome to Gravel Racing 101:

How does gravel racing work?

Gravel races combine the endurance-testing lengths of road races with some of the rugged terrain you might see in XC mountain biking or cyclocross. 

Think of gravel bikes like the Trek Checkpoint as a midpoint between traditional road bikes and mountain bikes. It looks a lot like a road bike, with drop handlebars and a rigid fork, but has a slacker geometry and bigger tire clearance so that it can ride more stably over potholes, rocks and roots.   

The Checkpoint may not be as fast as the Madone on a flat road, nor quite as capable on gnarly trails as the Supercaliber, but for long rides over courses like UNBOUND Gravel and The Mid South, it’s a well-refined tool.

Jens Voigt on a lonely road during UNBOUND 2018.

That said, there’s no right way to take on a gravel course. The main event at UNBOUND is the 200-mile ride, but it also offers races as short as 25 miles and as long as 350. Reijnen has seen just about every type of rider at the event.

“So much of what’s cool about gravel, and what I love about it, is that it’s yet to be defined,” Reijnen says. “One guy shows up to a gravel road on a 1970s steel frame with downtube shifters and just the biggest tires you can fit in it, and another guy has bar bags and all the accoutrements and tools, and it’s like there’s so many ways to do it.”

Anyone can sign up for a gravel race (though due to demand, UNBOUND now uses a random selection process to mete out entries), which means that amateurs often line up next to pros inside the massive, corral starting area. But no matter competitors’ skill or experience levels, they’ll inevitably be pushed well out of their comfort zones.

As I squatted down to lift my bike onto my back and continue onward, it felt very empowering to conquer all of the elements on my own, when no one was watching.

- Hannah Finchamp

Finchamp won’t be taking part in UNBOUND this year, but she won The Mid South in 2020, an approximately 100-mile gravel race in Oklahoma. To get to the finish line, she had to do much more than spin her pedals.

“The gravel road was so muddy that the wheels on my bike were so clogged with mud that they couldn’t spin,” Finchamp says. “I couldn’t pedal my bike or even push it through the mud. I went to lift my bike up and it was too heavy to even lift. I looked around me and there was no one in sight. As I squatted down to lift my bike onto my back and continue onward, it felt very empowering to conquer all of the elements on my own, when no one was watching.”

As Orange Seal's Payson McElveen demonstrates, gravel racing is about much more than biking fast. | Photo: Wil Matthews

Gravel racing doesn’t “tactics” in the same sense as road races, where teams of riders work together to race as efficiently as possible, often in support of a designated leader. Gravel riders typically race solo, but given the nature of the terrain, where mechanical problems like flat tires and broken chains are inevitable, competitors often find themselves hopping off their bikes to help one another, then working together to get back up to speed.

Riders gain unexpected allies as a result.

“I think that the tactics of gravel racing, especially for the women, can often be overlooked,” Finchamp says. “Since the men and women start at the same time, the women find themselves drafting with and working with men out on the course. It can be a critical strategy to make sure you are in the right group whether it is with your other female competitors or not.”

In short: Everyone is in it together, and competitors are well-incentivized to get along.

Gravel racing is grueling for everyone, just ask cyclocross legend Sven Nys.

Is gravel racing really that friendly?

Yeah! According to Reijnen and Finchamp — both decorated racers in road and XC, respectively — riding gravel is less about where you finish in the field, and more about the stories you pick up along the way. Finchamp’s first gravel race was last year’s The Mid South, and she immediately noticed a sense of camaraderie among everyone around her.

“My experience has been that gravel is all about conquering individual goals, together,” Finchamp says. “In other words, every person out on that course is fighting for or pursuing a personal feat by racing in the event, and we all get to simultaneously celebrate each other for those achievements.”

Reijnen was gravel riding long before it became a cycling subgenre. He grew up in the Pacific Northwest, where riding in the woods, even on an old Madone with wedged-on 32c tires, was part of his everyday life, along with fishing and crabbing.

Every person out on that course is fighting for or pursuing a personal feat by racing in the event, and we all get to simultaneously celebrate each other for those achievements.

- Hannah Finchamp

Today, he says people are drawn to gravel because they want more than a race results sheet for their efforts. They want memories, intangible as they are, that they can share with friends and family for a lifetime.

“The first question I hope that I get asked, or that I would want to ask somebody at UNBOUND, isn’t, ‘What place did you come in?’ It’s, ‘How did it go out there? What happened?'” Reijnen says. “That’s so much more interesting to me. Place is almost insignificant compared to the experience.”

Hannah Finchamp's well-gravel'd, Mid South winning bike. | Photo: Wil Matthews

Reijnen’s favorite gravel racing memory took place at UNBOUND’s precursor in 2019. When he was nearing the finish line, he decided to slow down and cheer on a competitor who was in the midst of the 350-mile XL event, and ask if the man needed any help. After the race, the man found Reijnen and told him how much he appreciated the unsolicited support.

“How cool was it that we got to do that both together, during the event in that same sort of arena?” Reijnen says. “They just looked so happy and stoked to be out there. And when I yelled some encouragement to them, it was because whatever vibe they were putting out was contagious.”

A roving herd of UNBOUND racers.

Will gravel racing get *too* big to be fun?

It’s a good question. As gravel races swell with prestige and elite riders — many of them, like Reijnen, coming from a world of aero bars and power meters — it’s natural to wonder how the sport will evolve, and whether gravel racing will become too hyper-focused on results. The sport is very young, and still malleable.

But Reijnen isn’t overly worried. He understands the differences between the road and gravel mindsets as well as any one person can, and says that any roadies migrating to gravel are likely trying to shed rigidity, not port it over.

“There’s a reason that pro road cyclists are becoming interested in gravel, it’s because they like the atmosphere,” Reijnen says. “They like the shift, the change, the dynamic, the vibe. And so when they come, give them even more reason to like those things about the sport, so that rather than bringing the road with them, they absorb gravel.”

There's a reason that pro road cyclists are becoming interested in gravel. ... They like the shift, the change, the dynamic, the vibe.

- Kiel Reijnen

Both Reijnen and Finchamp believe gravel racing is here to stay. Last year, Reijnen even suggested that gravel racing could rejuvenate American cycling. To Finchamp, gravel racing encompasses the most rewarding aspects of riding a bike.

“I think that gravel riding will always be a cornerstone of the cycling community, especially as riding on busy roads seems to get more and more dangerous,” Finchamp says. “I think that most cyclists are inherently goal setters, and so I think we will continue to see the sport grow as we watch people wanting to take their gravel training to the next level by signing up for some of these races that give a huge sense of accomplishment just for finishing.”

Hannah Finchamp finally getting a breather after winning The Mid South in 2020. | Photo: Wil Matthews

As long as inclusivity remains the heart of gravel racing, it should continue to hold a unique place in the cycling ecosystem. And as the sport grows, it could become one of the few big-time events where how you rode, and what you discovered along the way, matters much more than where you finished.

“I could just be in that moment and enjoy it, and enjoy it with that person who’s doing something really different than what I was doing that day, but it was a shared experience,” Reijnen says, recalling the rider he met in 2019. “It reminded me that the finish line is not the whole point.”